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Weekend Escape: Santa Fe : Grand Operatunity : A Couple Is Drawn Again to Hear the Clear Beauty of the Human Voice in the Vast New Mexico Desert


SANTA FE, New Mexico — There is no place I'd rather be than in an opera house, and there's no place my husband, Bill, would rather be than on a trail somewhere. So, when it came time to pick a place to celebrate anniversary No. 8 in early July, we didn't hesitate: Santa Fe, N.M., was our mutual choice.

We are hardly the first to come to this decision. Last year, 838,855 overnight visitors disgorged on the city of 50,000, and this year it was judged the top destination in the world by readers of Conde Nast Traveler.

Much of the city's magic lies in its past, which makes itself felt in its architecture, Pueblo ruins, and churches and shrines, and which serves to soften its darker side: the traffic congestion, crowds and the threatening tide of over-development.

We had been to Santa Fe once before, to celebrate our fifth anniversary, and if there was one thing we'd learned, it's that you cannot begin trip planning too early. We booked our room at the Grant Corner Inn, a three-story manor house built in the early 1900s, on Jan. 6; we ordered opera tickets on Feb. 1, the first day they were available to non-subscribers. (Tickets are still available for almost all performances.)

After work on Thursday, we took a 90-minute Southwest flight (crowded but cheap, thanks to Southwest's Friends Fly Free fare) to Albuquerque, where we picked up a rental car and checked into a motel. We had grand plans for an early start on Friday, of driving into the vast sky-bowl of a New Mexico morning while the sun was still rising. But . . . there is something about New Mexico that makes one want to slow down . . . live in the moment . . . soak up the light. So it was closer to mid-morning by the time we hit I-25 for the 60-mile drive into Santa Fe.

After picking up picnic supplies that would provide us with at least three meals, we were off for an early lunch at El Farol, an old restaurant that is housed in an even older adobe at the top of Canyon Road. The place jumps at night, but at midday it was deserted. In fact, although the restaurant opens at 11, the staff was still setting up, so we settled down at a small table on the porch to watch the passing parade and to study the menu.

Of the tapas (small dishes that originated in Spain) on the menu, we chose a delicious. Soon the checked tablecloth was covered with tiny plates, bread baskets and two of the best--but pricey--glasses of sangria we'd ever had.

Then we headed for the Santa Fe Opera, which is seven miles outside of town on U.S. 84/285, perched atop a hill below the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Santa Fe Opera was begun by John Crosby, an ailing musician and dreamer from the East Coast who came west in the mid-'50s in search of a climate more suited to his health. He built his opera house in a natural bowl on what had been the San Juan Guest Ranch. Before construction began, he hired an acoustician and the two paced off the grounds, firing a cap pistol to determine the absolutely perfect location. It worked; the sound is fabulous.

That's just one of the stories we heard on the hour-long backstage tour of the opera house that snakes through the costume and wig department, the set and prop rooms and the carpentry shop where every stick of furniture must be custom made to accommodate Santa Fe's unique staging requirements: The house does not have a curtain and there is no room overhead to roll up scenery or backdrops.

Tours usually include a trip across the stage, but this afternoon a rehearsal of "The Abduction From the Seraglio" was in progress and the director had called for a closed set. Although we didn't get to see the stage, we did get to hear some gorgeous singing and the management shaved $3 off the tour price.

By mid-afternoon we were ready to find our B&B, which we had selected after reading several enthusiastic reviews. Grant Corner Inn is two blocks west of the downtown Plaza. To walk through its shaded gazebo is to leave the Southwest behind and enter a Victorian world. Our room (No. 10) on the third floor had a little nook with a love seat that was great for reading, but next time I'd like to sample Rooms 7 or 8, which share a small porch. All 11 rooms--some quite small, others quite spacious--have Oriental rugs, hardwood floors, brass beds, ceiling fans, handmade quilts, small refrigerators and radios. We were told that the inn is almost totally sold out through August (and reservations for July and August are recommended six months in advance.)

We climbed the two flights of stairs to our room, where we found fruit and chocolate awaiting. With the afternoon breeze gently blowing in the open window (we never did turn on the air conditioner, although temperatures were in the low '90s throughout the weekend) we were both out like lights.

That evening, since we were going to the opera, it seemed only fitting to dine at Ristorante La Traviata. Our reservations were for 6 p.m., which allowed plenty of time before a 9 p.m. curtain.

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